Braves’ ‘Big Sexy’ faces former Mets teammates in Game 2

Bartolo Colon delivers a pitch in Friday’s exhibition against the Yankees in Atlanta. On Wednesday, he makes his Braves regular-season debut in New York when he faces the team for whom he played the past three seasons, the Mets. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Bartolo Colon delivers a pitch in Friday’s exhibition against the Yankees in Atlanta. On Wednesday, he makes his Braves regular-season debut in New York when he faces the team for whom he played the past three seasons, the Mets. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

NEW YORK – Bartolo Colon got a standing ovation from Mets fans Monday when introduced along with the Braves on opening day at Citi Field, and no one was surprised.

They loved “Big Sexy” for the past three seasons in Queens, where Colon’s blue-collar mentality and beer-league-softball body were accompanied by a jovial smile and stellar, durable pitching when some Mets pitchers barely half his age were breaking down.

On the November day that news broke of 43-year-old Colon leaving the Mets to sign a one-year, $12.5 million contract with the Braves, Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, who considered Colon a mentor and gave him the nickname “Big Sexy,” posted on Twitter: “Feelings right now” with an emoji that had a tear coming from one eye.

On Wednesday, Colon will be back on the Citi Field mound, this time pitching against friends and former teammates when the Braves play the Mets in the middle game of the series.

“Playing against him is going to be very interesting,” Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson said. “I’ve done it before; a lot of these guys haven’t. He’s going to come at you, he’s going to compete, he’s going to battle and he’s going to give his team the best opportunity to be victorious.”

Colon was 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 191 2/3 innings in 2016, his fourth consecutive year with at least 30 starts and 190 innings. He was 6-2 with a 3.17 ERA in his final 12 starts while allowing two earned runs or fewer in nine of those games.

But what many Mets fans will remember most were the athletic ability that belied his 5-foot-10, 285-pound body, the behind-the-back toss to first base, the all-out swings that dislodged his batting helmet, and the May 7 home run off James Shields in San Diego that got a huge ovation even from Padres fans. Colon was the oldest player to hit his first home run.

And did we mention the personality? We should again.

“He’s the same guy every day, he says hello to you every single day, and he’s got that smile that lights up a room,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It’s nice to have him on this side now, getting outs for us.”

On Monday he’ll face Jacob deGrom, the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and 2016 All-Star, who had a 3.04 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 143 innings last season but missed much of April and September for forearm and back problems and had September surgery to move the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow.

“I’m happy and I’m excited,” Colon said through an interpreter after pitching three innings in Friday’s exhibition win against the Yankees, his final tune-up before his official Braves debut. “I’ve done it before in my career where I’ve opened up against other teams that I’ve pitched for. The difference is you’re doing it in New York, one of the biggest cities in the world. Other than that, business as usual.”

Colon declined to speak with reporters before Monday’s season opener at Citi Field, but past and present teammates didn’t mind talking about him. Mention his name and they smile.

“Great personality, great individual, competitor, someone who logged a bunch of innings,” Granderson said. “He was able to take the ball in multiple situations, whether it was out of the bullpen or starting. … The fans definitely loved him and it’s obviously difficult to not have someone like that with you over the course of the season. But you’ve got to understand the business side of it, and the Braves picked up a great individual, a great pitcher.”

At Braves spring training Colon would often sit at a table with younger players in the middle of the mostly minor league side of the clubhouse — where his locker stall was strategically placed — listening, smiling, offering advice. He’d tell stories the others leaned in and followed intently, often cracking up in laughter at his anecdotes.

Other times, he sat quietly at his locker, reading from his phone, resembling some sort of Buddha figure in headphones.

“He’s a different guy but he’s awesome,” Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte said. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that respect him very much. We were playing the Mets in spring training and Jose Reyes came to me and said, ‘Hey man, how’s Bartolo doing? We miss that guy.’ I mean, the energy and the positive atmosphere that he creates is unbelievable.”

Braves catcher Tyler Flowers added, “He’s a funny guy, even though he’s not always on the same page as far as language and all. He has a good time, he keeps it loose. I think that’s something that plays to his advantage — whether he’s pitching well or not pitching well, whatever the situation is, it keeps him very level, keeps his confidence up at all times. And keeps everyone around him loose, too, which is always a good thing.

“You wouldn’t know it from talking to him if he threw a complete-game shutout or gave up 10 (runs) in three (innings).”

For Braves teammates, there likely will be a considerable level of comfort when he’s on the mound.

“I know he’s going to throw a lot of strikes, so he’s going to keep everybody ready for any kind of play,” Inciarte said. “And with the way he is, everybody is going to be happy and comfortable to play behind him.”

After a couple of months with him, the Braves know what the Mets knew: If anyone would be unfazed by any situation, including pitching against a former team, in New York, with a large crowd in the second game of the season, it’s Colon.

“I know it’s not bothering him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s just another day at the office for Bart. I’m sure he’s excited and looking forward to it. He had a lot of good times here. So it’ll be cool to see.”

Freeman smiled at the question and said, “He’s going to be just fine. We expect a lot out of him this year. He’s going to be out there giving us a chance to win. Pretty much what he did with the Mets, we hope he does for us.”

Colon is beginning his 20th season with his ninth major league team. He’ll be 44 in May, the oldest active player in baseball, and his 233 career wins are third-most by a Latin American-born pitcher. Colon could move to the top of the list with a healthy season – he trails only Dennis Martinez (245) and Juan Marichal (243).

“Some of these (young Braves) don’t know major league baseball without him in it,” Snitker said. “He’s done it for so long and he knows how to do it. His day-in and day-out preparation — guys have just kind of looked to him with that, for his leadership to the young Latin players that we have, and just anybody. When a guy has been that successful and done it for that long, he’s a pretty good resource for these guys to have.”

Inciarte said, “He’s not going to be on you all the time, but whenever you need the right advice he’s going to give it to you. He’s one of those guys who tries to take pressure off you by telling you, ‘Man, simplify the game. Just play the game, have fun and don’t think about the result that much.’ He’s been around for 20 years, he knows what he’s talking about.”